Mapping out the next category
If you read my first post about DroneUp, I mentioned that the badges are somewhat grouped or at least have a few that are related in what drone pilot requirements or skills they represent. There are some just basic documentation and certification requirements and then there are these current badges that are all skill and experience related. With the Cinematic Pilot badge completed, the next series I’ve chosen to pursue are the Aerial Mapping badges that are given when a pilot can demonstrate an appropriate understanding of the concepts, software, and relative flying acumen required to capture footage and photos required for client mapping requests. Later the same day, I sat down to try and figure out what I would need to pursue these mapping badges.
Drone Deploy is one of many mapping solutions in the industry and is relatively popular. I actually registered for a trial early on, before I even had a drone that it supported, and didn’t get very far with it for that same reason. So, revisiting the requirements and dusting off my log in to the cloud-based platform, I come to find out that I still don’t have the right mix of equipment. This time, I have the right drone, but not the right controller. The DJI drones work really well with Apple iOS devices that you simple plug into the standard DJI controllers to fly your drones. It can access maps through your cell signal or wifi, you can download maps ahead of time and have them to use if you’re out of signal range somewhere, and its a little less extra equipment to carry unless you want to use a dedicated iPad. Well, I purchased a bundle of gear with my Mavic 2 Pro that came with one of their Smart Controllers, which also has a lot of benefits, but one glaring issue in this case.
The Smart Controllers are Android based and currently, Drone Deploy does not support Android. There are a few of these proprietary mapping platforms that have built autonomous control software that you plan ahead your flight with and simply launch the drone using their flight program to capture your desired photos and video. Unfortunately, I do not have the standard controller to use the iOS version of this app at this time, so this was another dead-end…a bit of product research I hadn’t picked up on.
Down the list of badges, there is another for a platform called Pix4D, so I did some searches and did identify this was probably going to work for me, but not without some legwork. So, while their platform does have an Android app on the Google Play Store, the Smart Controller doesn’t come with the Play app installed. Fortunately, some smarter people out there put together a quick how-to on how to get it installed on the controller so this app, and others I might need in the future, can readily be downloaded and installed. I do live in the mountains, in a fairly rural location, and the internet is horribly slow, making this task take much longer than it really should have. But, I got it all installed, loaded, and began planning my mapping mission.
I knew this would be a tough one to do with my property and house as the subject, since it requires the drone to fly along a specified set of gridlines to capture dozens of photos at a certain height for the right resolution. So, I planned for the next day to go flying out around the area and specifically head over to the county recreation park where they have several ball fields and a soccer field that I could use for my subject.
It was an extremely sunny day out at the park and everyone was doing their thing…walking, running, playing hoops, eating lunch, and the groundskeepers were in full force. So, I sat patiently to see if activity would settle down a little so I could fly and take all the shots needed with minimal interruptions and folks getting in the shots. I flew the first grid that I had programmed with no issues. I was quite surprised at how accurate the Pix4D flight control was, even to the point of its conclusion and returning to the home, landing in the exact same spot it took off from, something I haven’t seen with the standard DJI return to home function. I checked the images and realized they were entirely over-exposed.
Good thing I brought my neutral density (ND) filters, which I selected one to snap onto the drone. Creating or duplicating a flight plan is pretty simple in the app, and to ensure I got the most out of it, I changed the flight plan to capture a few more rows in the grid. This flight plan took just a little over a minute longer to run through completion and again, landed back at my feet where it took off from. A quick review of these photos looked great, so packed up and headed home.
Having mentioned this before, living in these mountains is wonderful, until you have to upload a few hundred high quality photo files. I set the upload process to work and went about my business and was pleasantly surprised that it only took a couple of hours to push nearly 400 total images up to the cloud application. Little did I know that the processing would then take another two hours. It was well worth the wait and effort, as the orthomosaic map created were really detailed and interesting to interact with, including being able to measure spaces and volumes, add annotations, and move the map around in a 3D space to look at different perspectives.
The next day, I decided to run a few missions over our property to see how this worked with elevation changes, trees, and a lot more “3D” elements to be mapped. I got the setting right this time and ran a few overlapping missions that just grabbed different angles of flight over the area, figuring it would capture images from those various angles and produce a higher quality output. The flights only take around 10 minutes to complete, each, then to the upload, process, and review. After a few more hours of all that, I finally get to see the output and its really interesting. The tall trees seemed to be the biggest obstacles but also some of the coolest features, as they rise up from the ground and really only the canopies of them obstruct the ground resolution. Otherwise, the 2D orthomosaic map looks incredibly detailed compared to a simple top-down view from a similar elevation. The 3D map is full of holes and shadowy areas where the camera just didn’t grab enough in the photos, but the resolution is still full of a lot of detail.
This last mission and processing ran my trial account dry with Pix4D. I still need to try Drone Deploy and Measure Ground Control, both have some free trial runs available. I learned a lot in a short time with these and am definitely looking forward to more of this type of work.